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Larson, 2000 - Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth...

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Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth Development Reed W. Larson University of lllinois at Urbana-Champaign This article analyzes the development of initiative as an exemplar of one of many learning experiences that should be studied as part of positive youth development. The capacity for initiative is essential for adults in our society and will become more important in the 2lst century, yet adolescents" have few opportunities to learn it. Their typical experiences during schoolwork and unstructured leisure do not reflect conditions for learning initiative. The context best suited to the development of initiative appears to be that of structured voluntary activities, such as sports, arts, and participation in organizations, in which youths expe- rience the rare combination of intrinsic motivation in com- bination with deep attention. An incomplete body of out- come research suggests that such activities are associated with positive development, but the developmental processes involved are only beginning to be understood. One prom- ising approach has recorded language use and has found that adolescents participating in effective organizations acquire a new operating language that appears to corre- spond to the development of initiative. I t cannot be said, as for other domains of psychology, that developmental psychology has neglected the pos- itive. Development, after all, is a process of growth and increasing competence. In the important subdomain of so- cial and emotional development, however, we are often more articulate about how things go wrong than how they go right. We have a burgeoning field of developmental psychopathology but have a more diffuse body of research on the pathways whereby children and adolescents become motivated, directed, socially competent, compassionate, and psychologically vigorous adults. Corresponding to that, we have numerous research-based programs for youth aimed at curbing drug use, violence, suicide, teen preg- nancy, and other problem behaviors, but lack a rigorous applied psychology of how to promote positive youth development. The place for such a field is apparent to anyone who has had contact with a cross section of American ado- lescents. In such a group, one encounters a surprising number of youth who appear to be bored, unmotivated, and unexcited about their lives. This malaise was brought home to me when we obtained a random sam- pling of self-reports on 16,000 moments in the daily experience of a representative sample of White, work- ing- and middle-class young adolescents--a group that seemingly has everything going for them. These youth reported feeling bored for 27% (4,300!) of these random moments (Larson & Richards, 1991). Of course, indi- viduals differed in these rates, but what was surprising was that honor students were as likely as those involved in delinquent activities to be among those reporting high rates of boredom, in many cases for more than 50% of the random moments. The litany of explanations for this boredom--"algebra sucks," "I'm always bored on Sun-
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